The blunt scissor blades glided across each other, refusing to cut behind the ears. I tiptoed downstairs and slipped the knife sharpener in my pocket. Mother heard, staggered onto the landing and clutched the banisters.
'You still here? Get yourself down to the Jobcentre now.'
'In a minute,' I said, diving into my room.
The screech of metal on metal penetrated the ear defenders. With the guinea pig on newspaper on my lap, I sheared her back close to the skin, turned her over and sheared the belly, biting my lip till it was sore. She looked small naked. The mouth was frozen ajar and the buck teeth stuck out. I laid her aside, folded the paper into a V and tipped the soft, silky fur – the same ginger as my sister Gemma's – into the see-through envelope, peeled off a jam-jar label and lined it up against the edge, then wrote 'Leona, guinea pig, died 20.06.2015, aged 4.' Not a bad lifespan. In thirty-eight years my writing on the labels had changed from big and wonky to neat and tiny. I wrapped the close-shaven body in a double sheet of kitchen towel printed with pink hearts and slipped it in the shoebox back under the bed.
I washed my hands with the antibacterial gel I'd bought. You couldn't rely on Mother for these things. There were no clean towels in the cupboard. The kitchen was messy, washing-up left for me and the mugs dishevelled, handles pointing all ways. The fridge was empty and the cake and biscuit drawer contained only a hunk of stale Swiss roll, which I scoffed.
The pall-bearers slow-goosestepped down the aisle with the woman inside, smooth yellow skin, or maybe old and wrinkled, I don't know. This was the church five doors from home where Mother sent us to Sunday School. They'd removed the choir stalls and pulpit and mothballed the organ, and replaced them with a portable music stand and singing guitarist. From a lectern a relative harangued us with a sermon on heaven. My eyelids sagged because Minecraft had kept me up late, so I focused on the red-haired woman in the pew in front, shoulders covered in dandruff. People with dandruff shouldn't wear black. Her scalp had more flakes. She smelt like the honeysuckle near the pet cemetery. The singer struck up. The organ should be giving the dead woman a rousing send-off, not this hippie strummer. Thankfully we stood for the final hymn, Abide with me, and I drowned him out from my back seat. We trooped out behind the coffin and I shook hands with the man on the door and declined his invitation to the wake because I wasn't grasping, only came to honour the deceased.
Outside we stood in groups, chatting. The waste ground alongside the church adjoined the long garden of my house. It was bare now, no gooseberries to scoff, no bramble thickets to hide in, nowhere for treasure hunts, just rough grass. It looked smaller than when we were children. A nothing place. Beyond it was the dump next to the alley, levelled and replanted. One man disrespectfully threw back his head and guffawed. I joined the group with the red-haired woman who wore patent leather shoes with bows and scuff marks.
'How did you know Joan?' she asked.
I leant back, colouring. 'I didn't,' I said but could think of nothing else to say and backed off. She looked dumbfounded and I would have left then, but was unsure whether it was appropriate.
The body was swollen and flaccid and smelt foul and sweet. The skin showed more green than pink through the cropped ginger fur and the tongue stuck out through the open mouth. My forefinger stroked from the nose to the top of the head, stretching the skin so that the whiskers twitched. I folded the kitchen towel over and lowered her into the shoebox.
After groping around in the fridge and larder I found some bread, picked off the mould and made a cheese and pickle sandwich with rancid butter to eat in my room. Mr Papadopoulos next door, who was ninety-nine and had Alzheimer's, was wailing and his nasty daughter who came every day with yappy Jack Russell yelled, 'You haven't got a dog. That's my dog. You dog is dead.' A door slammed. He used to pat Gemma on the head and call her Smiler and laugh when she made her eyebrows dance separately. He never laughed now. The beastly son and daughter had sacked the kindly carer and cleaned and did his washing themselves. Mr Papadopoulos used to be a teacher.
He went out at the same time as me, clattering down the seven stone steps at the front with steel-tipped heels. Mother wished she had his legs. He doffed his cap, as always.
One undertaker had a creased shirt and another had unpolished shoes, a slap in the face for the family. Mr Bell died peacefully in his sleep, they said. He'd have no peace if he could see who was carrying him. It was hot in my dark suit. The plummy-voiced vicar started a prayer and I peeped. None of the undertakers had eyes closed. I clenched mine shut and mumbled amen with the gathering. A granddaughter with blond hair read out a lovely poem about Mr Bell never moaning, always smiling, and the vicar waved towards the sun shining through red and blue windows erected by John Benjamin Craven according to the Gothic script at the bottom. There were ninety-three panes in the first section, one hundred and four in the second and one hundred and fifteen in the third, without rhyme or reason. Mr Bell would not have approved of the haphazard arrangement, nor the trailing shoelace and disorderly shuffling of the undertakers going up the aisle in the last hymn. I sang my loudest. It was All things bright and beautiful, which Gemma annoyingly sang all the time after starting Sunday School.
The grasshoppers screeched in the heat and the brass handles glinted on the coffin, which everyone followed, so I did too, keeping to the back. There were nettles. The church should trim the margins and set the mower to a lower cut. Respect for the dead. And cut down the old yew with the trunk like a bundle of ropes. The roots might strangle the bodies. The whole churchyard was a mess of tattered bouquets, fake flowers gone grey and fallen tombstones. I picked up a Polo wrapper, disgusted. A sign read: Please remember that this is consecrated ground. No dogs, no vehicles (without permission), no bicycles and please, no litter. Could they not read?
'NO LITTER,' I said to the gawking man beside me, holding up the wrapper.
Mother was too fuddled to bother about my shredded curtain linings with dangling threads. I tried to source diamond ore on Minecraft while Mr Papadopoulos howled through the wall, but Steve refused to jump and his punches didn't break the rocks. The help forum was no help and full of misspellings. Why can't people spell these days? Mother said it didn't matter. It does, it does matter. I quit and took Leona out. She was purple-black, her eyes bulged out of their sockets and her tongue was pudgy. My teeth tugged at my sore lip. She stank in the scorching temperatures. I stroked her, carried her downstairs in the box and traipsed past what was Gemma's flower patch, overgrown with six-foot-high dock, with a trowel and kneeler to the cemetery at the bottom of the garden.
The ground was soft in the shade and soon bits of white tissue appeared, now floppy and brown, which I scraped aside to reveal gaping holes in the last guinea pig's belly, crawling with maggots and centipedes that waved their feelers at this rude interruption of their meal. I wafted the orbiting flies aside, covered it with a dock leaf, laid Leona in the pristine tissue on top, backfilled and said a prayer. Mother would be vexed. Church and God stuff was for the likes of Auntie Gladys. In indelible pen I wrote 'Leona' on the cross made from lolly sticks tied together with a rubber band.
Every year I renewed the den roof with elder from the alley. I used to let Gemma share. The coat hooks screwed into the tree bark had rusted, as had the swing frame where Mrs Giordano over the back found her dangling by a red canvas shoe and screaming. She berated Mother for not hearing, and Mother berated me for not coming to tell her, which I would have done if she'd told me that before. It must have been autumn because the holly was covered in red berries, and now they were green and the soldier beetles were still mating on the hogweed flowers.
My hands were rough and the fingertips had deep grooves filled with earth in spite of the gardening gloves. Thirty-seven years ago I had buried my first mouse. Daz. According to the page on soil types in my geography book the cemetery was loamy and bodies would decay in four to five years. But it took a thousand years to form one centimetre of soil.
The rain formed a puddle on a nearby grave and knocked petals off the pansies in an alabaster vase. It would be penetrating, wetting Leona's body. I clenched my fist tight as a rolled-up hedgehog and hummed the Minecraft creeper rap, but stopped when a man with a polished crown turned and scowled, a horrible scowl that reminded me of my father.
The widow's shoes had a mud rim and the rain darkened her hair and streamed down her face. A lock on her forehead released its load of water and sprang back up in a curl. An older woman with a drooping hat feather clasped her shoulder. Mother never hugged me like that. We weren't tactile in our family. The daughter tried to throw earth on the coffin but it stuck to her fingers. She scraped it from one hand to the other, till her mother rubbed it off with a hankie and gave her the hankie to throw.
Walking home, I passed Mr Papadopoulos's daughter letting the Jack Russell defecate on the verge. It was smooth and nut-brown, disgusting. We exchanged politenesses.
Mother, sober and smelling of nail varnish, had a lasagne ready. She demanded to know where I'd been.
'Out,' I said.
I gobbled dinner, and seconds, and washed up without being asked.
Upstairs, I took out the see-through envelope with Leona's fur and held it up to the window, but the light was failing. Sobs came through the wall. I drained the glass on my bedside cabinet and put it between my ear and the wall, but the words were garbled. Minecraft drowned out the noise, but there were too many creepers spawning in the overworld and it was three o'clock before I gave up.
The coffin was made of wicker. People waited outside to leave for the crematorium. A woman said her sister worried about her husband gaining three stone since making his will, but the undertakers assured her it was strong enough to carry a horse. I planned to go home but it seemed rude to dash off, though they were all laughing that the coffin bottom might drop out. Scandalous, I thought, and joined another group, who fell silent at my approach.
'How did you know James?' I asked the man beside me for something to say.
They all stared.
'I'm his brother,' he said.
The blood hammered in my temples as I backed off and sidled past the shiny hearse with the undertakers milling round, and pretended to be interested.
Back home, Mr Papadopoulos hoofed down his front steps like a goat. He lifted his hat and said good day. Three hours later the police knocked to ask if we'd seen him. After another hour they found him and the nasty son and daughter came and bellowed and the Jack Russell barked.
'If I had my way,' the daughter shouted, 'you'd be in a home, but you know what these homes are like. Your money would be gone.' She screeched the last word.
The following day Mr Papadopoulos left and the daughter knocked on our door.
'We've moved him into a flat near us,' she said obsequiously, dog by her side, 'and my son will take over the lease since he's lived next door for the last two years.' I stared at this downright untruth. Mr Papadopoulos had moved into the two-bedroomed house with his wife when I was a boy, forty years ago. Mother said they were trying to swindle the council over the right to buy and I should tell anyone the grandson had never lived there. Why on earth would I tell them otherwise?
'They'll be even nastier to Mr Papadopoulos now,' I told Mother, but she said he would at least be safe.
The grandson showed up only a couple of times afterwards. Minecraft failed to drown out the silence, or the noise from Mother's room. She'd brought home one of her men again. I opened the drawer and went through the envelopes, fifteen pets and two wild birds, one rescued from a cat and nursed, in vain. From the last envelope I took out a single lock of Gemma's hair as long as my hand, cut off while she slept the night before she died. Mother didn't know about that. They found Gemma in the fridge on the dump. I watched them take her out in her blue diamante top and green floral skirt and the red canvas shoes. The council took it away, and later cleared the rest of the rubbish: bedstead, chairs, sacks of cement, rubble. Father asked why I didn't come and tell them she was in the fridge.
'Why didn't you tell us?' he kept on for months, until he left home, but I don't know why not.
My hands were chapped, so I held the fine, silky hair to my cheek. It was a paler red than I remembered, and still smelt faintly of shampoo. The feathery strands on the outside tickled my cheek. I don't know why not.